Sudden Death During Sports Still Rare

Sports related sudden cardiac deaths were less likely to occur in women than men

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D. Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) While physical activity is generally good for the body, vigorous sports activity can be risky for untrained people. The risks for women may be pretty rare, at least where the heart's concerned.

Sudden cardiac deaths (SCD) while playing sports were less likely to happen in women than in men, a new study showed.

Sudden cardiac death happens when the heart abruptly stops working properly.

The authors of this study said that their findings highlight the need for more specific attention and research on heart diseases in women.

"Getting back into exercise? Ease into it."

This study, which was led by Eloi Marijon, MD, PhD, from the Paris Cardiovascular Researcher Center in France, looked at the characteristics and outcomes of sudden cardiac deaths that occurred in women playing sport activities.

The study included 820 French participants between 10 and 75 years of age who presented to the hospital with sudden cardiac death suffered while playing community recreational or competitive sports. The participants were part of a national survey extending from April 2005 to April 2010.

The researchers tracked the number of deaths that occurred during sporting activities with moderate to vigorous levels of exertion. They compared the number of cases that occurred in persons younger than 35 and older than 35.

Among the participants, the researchers found that 5.2 percent, or 43 cases, of sudden cardiac death occurred in women engaged mainly in jogging, swimming and cycling.

At the time the heart stopped functioning properly, about 81 percent of the women were engaging in moderate to vigorous levels of physical activity.

Overall, an estimated 0.59 to 2.17 sports-related sudden cardiac deaths per year per million female sports participants occurred in women between 15 and 75 years of age.

Women had fewer sports-related cardiac deaths than men, particularly among adults between 45 and 54 years of age. Sports-related sudden cardiac deaths were up to 30 times less common in women than men.

Despite patients being resuscitated under similar circumstances, the researchers also found that the survival rate at hospital admission was significantly higher for women than for men who had sports-related sudden cardiac death.

Women survived about 47 percent of the time at the hospital, compared to 30 percent of men. The rate of survival for women when discharged from the hospital was not significantly different than the rate for men.

Though the reasons behind the lower rate of sudden cardiac deaths in women than men are unclear, the researchers said that the greater number of sudden cardiac deaths could partly be due to men having a slightly higher participation rate in moderate to vigorous sports than women.

“In conclusion, SCD during sport activity is a very rare event in women, particularly in middle age, with a frequency up to 30-fold lower than in men,” the researchers wrote in their report. “This particularly low incidence among women remains relatively constant with increasing age.”

According to Adam Shapira, MD, electrophysiologist on staff at The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano, “Sudden cardiac death is very unlikely to affect women engaged in sport activity and occurs at a frequency 30 times lower than that seen in men. Although further research is needed to identify risks of sudden cardiac death in women, the findings of this study should not dissuade women from participating in sports, as physical activity provides tremendous benefits across a wide spectrum of individuals.

"Of course, any participation in an exercise program needs to be tailored to the individual and guided by consultation with a physician,” Dr. Shapira said.

The authors noted that the characteristic differences in sudden cardiac death between men and women could be weak because a very small proportion of women experienced them.

In addition, the small proportion of women who had a sports-related cardiac death could be due to reporting bias. The researchers also could not determine the exact amount of time spent doing strenuous activities.

Further study is needed, according to the researchers, to see why women did not have as many cardiac deaths from sports-related activities than men.

This study, which was funded by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and French Society of Cardiology, was published online November 4 in the journal Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology, by the American Heart Association.

Review Date: 
November 6, 2013
Last Updated:
November 12, 2013